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Teodoro L. Locsin: Philippines at the IMO: Setting the sails for a sustainable future

Philippines at the IMO: Setting the sails for a sustainable future
Teodoro L. Locsin Jr.March 8, 2024

Let’s start with the pandemic when the world shut down, all of it, and only the maritime industry, especially the merchant marine fleet and seafarers—mostly Filipinos—kept the global economy afloat. In response, we established a Green Lane for stranded seafarers to come ashore to accommodations free of charge. So far as we know none else followed.

We’ve been a member of the International Maritime Organization since 1964 and active in the IMO Council since 1997. At the last Council elections, we got the highest number of votes in all of our candidatures at the IMO. We had peanuts for a budget but real friends in the private sector like my long-time friend Doris Ho and my mom’s cousin, Carlos Salinas. Above all, UNIO and all your Posts helped with the qpqs. At every turn you were around to help. Thank you so much. You will be glad to know the London team put all the help to good use with a smart agenda: achievable concrete goals and commitments. Zero platitudes.

First. Climate change and keeping seafarers at the center of the IMO’s work and top of its agenda.

At the 80th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), we successfully advocated the inclusion of seafarer’s protection in the Revised IMO Strategy on Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Shipping. There’s been Scandinavian chatter of crewless ships. I said that won’t happen anytime soon—if at all the leading expert Laleh Khalili told me at the book launch of her SINEWS OF WAR AND TRADE. Future achievements in automation, I said, are made possible by profits from the manual skill and labor of the seafarers yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Without them shipping won’t transition to a green economy. Anything else is a pipe dream. The message was well received.

The MEPC Resolution endorsed the Revised IMO Strategy acknowledging the key role of seafarers and other maritime professionals in ensuring the safe and successful implementation of the Strategy. It includes provisions on a comprehensive approach to regulating safety aboard ships utilizing zero or near-zero GHG emission technologies. IMO was urged to evaluate its instruments, guidance, and training standards to facilitate an equitable transition, necessarily enabled by seafarers, that will leave none of them behind. Without serious reskilling and upskilling, our seafarers will be left behind or consigned to the worst sectors of the industry.

We told the Integrated Technical Cooperation Program of the IMO that we will donate $30,000 to fund trainings relating to reduced Greenhouse Gas emissions. Our contribution will enhance our visibility in the IMO and the credibility to our vaunted commitment to the UN SDG goals on climate change and sustainable use of oceans.

Second, supporting capacity building initiatives for developing countries.

ITCP aims to assist governments lacking technical knowledge and resources to operate a shipping industry safely, efficiently, and responsively. Since 2003 the Philippines is home to the IMO Regional Presence for Technical Cooperation in East Asia; we have seconded staff to it. It’s been pivotal in delivering projects. We must expand it to further raise our visibility and help in our future candidatures.

On our recommendation, the Philippines last year donated $30,000 to fund trainings relating to maritime security and safety such as maritime casualty investigation, piracy prevention, and control of maritime pollution. We were thinking of the African states—with a sizable number of votes—aside from the benefits to us.

Third. Protection of seafarers and situation in the Red Sea.

With the high number of Filipino seafarers in the global fleet, we have been co-sponsoring and supporting initiatives to protect seafarers from bullying in the maritime workplace and their abandonment in vessels abandoned by the owners. And there is piracy in the Red Sea.

Since November 19, 2023, the IMO Secretariat has recorded 27 acts of piracy against international shipping transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. This included the Bahamas flagged vessel MV Galaxy Leader taken by Houthi forces. The vessel—registered in the UK with a Japanese operator—had onboard 17 Filipino seafarers, two Bulgarian captains, three Ukrainians, two Mexicans and one Romanian. The Houthis say the ship is owned by an Israeli business interest; adding only recently that they did it in response to Gaza.

Earlier in January, the new IMO Secretary-General briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in the Red Sea. The UNSC later adopted Security Council Resolution 2722 (2024). The Secretary-General also met with the signatory states of the Djibouti Code of Conduct, which is instrumental in addressing piracy in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

Last February 21, the IMO Secretary-General asked to meet me regarding the MV Galaxy Leader case. He mentioned the release of a Filipino seafarer onboard the seized oil tanker MV ST Nikolas. He asked about further efforts to release other crewmembers. He noted an escalation of maritime tension in the Red Sea and suggested the Philippines and his office share information that may be useful for the release of other crewmembers. He confided there is difficulty keeping contact with the UN Resident Coordinator in Yemen; but he is ready to help in any way possible. I said we are seeking help at the bilateral level; we have been in good standing with the regional powers involved or affected.

Fourth. Safety of navigation.

Our geographical location places the Philippine archipelago astride some of the world’s major maritime trade and passage routes. The designation of Archipelagic Sea Lanes ensures safety of navigation and regulation of maritime traffic. They are key to our territorial integrity.

In my term as SFA, the DFA already initiated the designation of ASLs at the IMO with the submission of a paper proposal by Angela Ponce. Last February 19, I was invited by the Senate Committee on Philippine Admiralty and Maritime Zones to the public hearing on proposed bills on Archipelagic Sea Lanes. Anne and I discussed the IMO procedure for submission and adoption of ASLs. I stressed that early crafting and minute compliance with requirements are imperative. Rejection leaves a bad taste. London PE will judge its completeness before submission; we have an open channel with Senator Tolentino. The Senate Committee concluded discussions and created a technical working group to reconcile the bills including the House version.

Fifth. Gender equality in the maritime sector.

IMO is already addressing the current gender imbalance in the maritime sector to achieve SDG Goal 5. On Thursday, IMO will be celebrating International Women’s Day with the theme “Invest in women and accelerate progress”. Next week I will ask Ambassador Lagdameo and his NYPM team to mull elevating the issue at the UN’s Commission on Status of Women (CSW). It was an insistent London PE advocacy in Lagdameo’s time.

The role of women in ocean governance reflects a critical intersection between the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the SDGs, particularly in enhancing women’s participation in decision-making in relation to Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water on the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources. The Secretary of Environment, Tony Loyzaga, a leading expert in the field, will be in the UN next week.

Ironically, contributions of women in ocean governance remain largely unrecognized; their participation at the decision-making level is lower than men. And yet Rachel Carson trail-blazed this concern since the 1950s with her influential classic The Sea Around Us; Elisabeth Mann Borgese—dubbed “the mother of oceans” followed her. With Arvid Pardo, she wrote a proposed constitution and sparked the first international conference on the law of the sea held in Malta under the title of Pacem in Maribus; “pakem” if you took Latin formally.

Lastly, Elinor Ostrom got the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for lifetime work on the ocean commons, discrediting the tendentious claim that private property avoids “the tragedy of the commons.” The unintended culmination has been UNCLOS and, ironically, the enhanced commercial exploitation rather than political protection of vast stretches of sea. This has worked out largely for the benefit of France with 11.7 million square kilometres, US with 11.4, Australia 8.5, Russia 7.5, UK 6.8, Indonesia 6.2, Canada 5.6, Japan 4.5, New Zealand 4.1 and Brazil 3.8 million. And that’s it. Surprised our victory at the Hague got only much belated support from them; they finally realized that the rich fish where they want; the poor are barely able in their country’s own seas. Thank you and good day.

Mr. Locsin is ambassador of the Philippines to the United Kingdom, and represents the country in the International Maritime Organization Council.